Verona holds to sense of place

Friday, September 12, 2008
Donald Hunter has lived in the Verona community his whole life.

VERONA -- When this crossroads community first began to coalesce into something big enough to need a name, it was nearly dubbed "Kiss Me Quick."

Lifelong resident Donald "Dude" Hunter explains the origin of such an unlikely name.

"Back before they built the bridge," Hunter explains, jerking a thumb in the general direction of the Sam Pope Bridge, named for the former county superintendent of roads, "the road out here used to have a dip in it. Back in the horse and buggy days, a boy and his girl would go down in that dip and he'd tell her, 'Kiss me quick! Before we come up out of this dip!'

"They tried to get me to call it that back when I was mayor," Hunter adds with a disparaging shrug, "but I wouldn't do it."

Hunter is not the real mayor, of course. Verona's never been big enough to need a real mayor. Nor can he lay claim to being Verona's favorite son; that title would have to go to two-term Tennessee governor Buford Ellington.

But at 86, Hunter does claim the title of being Verona's oldest male citizen. No one disputes it.

Ellington first traded life down on the farm for life in the governor's mansion back in the late '50s. His departure launched Verona on a long, slow slide into oblivion.

Only recently has anything happened to give folks here hope that slide might be arrested.

Used to be Verona had its own school and sported not one but two general stores. The old mill that used to stand over on Big Rock Creek even boasted a dynamo that sold electricity to city folks down in Lewisburg.

But no more.

The mill was run by the late Roland Lunn, who also delivered the mail and who cut something of a larger-than-life figure hereabouts.

"He fell out of a tree once and broke his leg," drawls Hunter. "Set it himself."

He pauses to wince appreciatively before continuing. "Doctor said it was a perfect set, too. Never even slowed him down. I seen him climb poles with a broke leg."

Hunter looks up from the domino game he and James Barron having been playing off and on for the last decade or so before casually adding, "Make sure you put in there that you been talking to the biggest liar in Verona."

Hunter still remembers attending Zula Collins' eighth-grade class at Verona School. Given that Collins taught for what Hunter and Barron agree must have been "50, 60 years at least," it is an experience that was shared by a good many other Verona residents before the old school closed and the buses started running.

"Back then they rode ponies and buggies to school," Hunter muses. "Used to tie 'em to an old oak tree they had out front. Nowadays I guess they all drive to school."

Back before Ellington answered the siren call of politics, he and Hunter were next-door neighbors. Hunter remembers him as a shrewd politician who never lost his touch with the common people.

He even confesses to playing craps on occasion with the future governor.

"He never did come back to live here after he was governor," Hunter allows, "but he still stopped by every once in awhile. He was a friend to everybody, black or white -- didn't make no difference to him. That's just how he was."

Hunter has been a fixture of business life in Verona for longer than most folks hereabouts can remember. After he retired from Genesco, he and his wife, Marjorie, ran Hunter's Market for 25 years.

"We sold a little bit of everything except drugs," he says. "Barbed wire, shoes, coveralls -- you name it, we probably sold it at one time or another. We only shut down so Wal-Mart wouldn't have to."

Hunter built the store with his own hands. It was to be his and Marjorie's retirement. "I wanted to have something for when I got old," he explains.

At the time, he had no way of knowing his days would stretch on this long.

In all the years Hunter and his wife ran the store, they closed it only once, to visit friends in London, England, for an entire month back in the early '70s.

Marjorie passed away in 2000. Now Verona's honorary mayor fills his days playing dominoes and puttering and keeping up on the latest gossip.

He insists he wouldn't live anywhere else. "This is God's country," he declares.

It's a sentiment shared by many here.

Robert "Gator" Grissom's daddy ran a barbershop on the square in Lewisburg. His mother worked at Genesco. They moved to Verona in 1952.

That the family ended up here at all, Gator confides, is something of a quirk of fate. They stopped one day to look at an antique desk and wound up buying a house. They've been here ever since. Gator's mother will be 91 the 19th of this month.

Gator has worked a number of jobs over the years, including a stint at Heil Quaker. But since 1989 he's been best known as the proprietor of Gator's Tradin Post.

"I sell bait and tackle, custom leather, firewood, kindling hell, just about anything to make a little something to pay the bills," Gator says, running his fingers through his graying, Whitman-esque beard.

But wresting a living from a small country store, he can tell you, is getting harder. The competition is stiffer these days. A lot of potential customers drive right through Verona on their way to somewhere else.

"I can remember the time you'd wait half a day for somebody to drive by so you could get a ride into town," Gator says. "Now, if you don't run when you cross that road, you'll get run over."

When Hunter's Market closed, a part of Verona's soul closed with it. Earlier this year, however, an unexpected event took place that promises to breathe new life into Verona.

In July, Connie Niamon, who used to operate Sweetie Pie's restaurant in Lewisburg, opened a new store -- The Verona Store grocery and deli -- in the old Hunter's Market building.

"I hung out here a lot when I was a little girl, so I have good memories of this place," Niamon says. "After I closed Sweetie Pie's I happened to drive by and saw that it was available. I prayed about it for a couple of weeks before deciding to go ahead with it."

Niamon serves breakfast and lunch and is open six days a week. Her husband Ralph and daughter Kristin help out. The place quickly became popular with the locals, but they get a lot of fishermen, farmers and people who come out from town too.

"The people in the community have just been wonderful," Niamon says. "It didn't matter if we were painting or putting in the air conditioning or what have you, they were here to lend a helping hand."

The first, third and fifth Saturday of each month The Verona Store offers a "fish fry and pickin'".

Anybody that wants to can bring an instrument or sing or just come and listen. As one measure of how popular the pickin's are becoming, the store has sold 150 pounds of French fries each Saturday they've been held.

"That," Niamon says, "is a lot of potatoes."

Niamon says she prayed for two weeks before deciding to give the store a go.

"I don't think you just happen to be anywhere. I think you're led," she says. "And I feel like I was led to be here. It's been a blessing for me and, I hope, for this community. I'm just tickled to be here. I don't think there's a better place in the whole county."